Kino Lorber Studio Classics unleashes John Steele
“Sir, do we get to win this time?” — John Rambo, Rambo: First Blood, Part II
When I was growing up and all my favorite action heroes were ripped stars striping on grease paint and heading into the jungles to exact revenge, I had no idea this was an entire cultural trend of capitalizing on trauma and hurt from the Vietnam war. I just thought these guys were the epitome of badass, and I played war in the woods in camouflage because it just felt cool to be like G.I. Joe, John Rambo, and John Matrix.
But America was wrestling with the impact of our fight in Vietnam, and our pop culture became saturated by one-man wrecking crews who eschewed the system; lost faith in the governmental entities that had hurled them into foreign jungles and allowed them to experience horror. The breed of action hero I grew up with knew that there was no winning if you trusted the system. You had to become a one-man killing machine to win, this time.
So out of that cultural landscape rose a post-Vietnam fantasy of highly trained, brutally effective killers who were also just blue collar guys with perfectly timed one-liners and a bunker full of weaponry they’re just itching to pull out and wreak havoc with whenever evil arises. In my youth I felt no conflict of interest whatsoever cheering for these underdogs who, through the sheer might of oiled up muscles and freedom, could take out the bad guys and rescue the girl.
Martin Kove’s (The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai, Rambo: First Blood, Part II) Steele Justice is a film I’d long been aware of; that VHS cover art that tempted you from the shelves throughout the 1980s and 90s but that you somehow never managed to convince your parents to let you rent. Thanks to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of the film, I’ve now gotten a chance to check out this action adventure star vehicle for Kove that absolutely emerges from the same mold as Rambo II or Commando, to mixed results.
To be perfectly honest, Steele Justice is my version of cinematic comfort food. I love stories like this from the era of my youth. I adore the Ronny Cox’s of the world, grizzled police chiefs who say things about the lead character like “He isn’t being recruited. He’s being unleashed”. And on a very basic level, Steele Justice is everything you might want from a 1980s action hero standpoint. Martin Kove has made a career of being in that pantheon of chiseled all-American types. Sure he’s mostly known as a villain, but he fits in just fine as the hero in this riff on the Rambo formula. Steele bonded in battle with best friend Lee (Robert Kim) at the end of the Vietnam war, and he came back to America having made a personal enemy of General Kwan (Soon-Tek Oh). We reconnect with Steele 12 years later (after this opening flashback) only to find Kwan has become a powerful and wealthy businessman in America and Steele’s blue collar everyman values keep him “between jobs” frequently. But when the Vietnamese mob, headed up with proper villainy by Big Trouble In LIttle China’s Peter Kwong as Kwan’s son Pham, kills off Lee’s family… Steele will square off with the Kwans and unleash hell.
While Steele Justice is highly entertaining, and very clearly following in the footsteps of a formula, its action execution is often sloppy and ham-handed. Say what you will about the politics or the implications of these post-Vietnam action fantasies, but Rambo and Commando loom large in the public consciousness still today largely because they’re executed with high quality and their action is iconic. That’s less true here in writer/director Robert Boris’ take on the material. But the flavor tastes similar, and it tastes pretty good. Steele runs around with a poisonous pet snake and a sword mounted on his back. They’re like Chekov’s snake and sword… you just know Steele will off some fools with them, but he’ll hold off until the two big bads with those. First he’ll hijack a bunch of insane military hardware and take out the Vietnamese mob with a minigun mounted on a tank and supplied by his corrupt former CO, whom he’ll also take out for good measure. Of course, he’ll also get the girl. In this case, Sela Ward, who begins the film entirely over Steele’s drunken, jobless bullshit, but comes around.
It’s all very satisfying, cathartic, and entertaining when viewed through the lens of an underdog veteran who’s been ground through the gears of America and found a way to take his skill set and exact justice with it. But when viewed through the lens of a straight, white, blue-blooded American male exacting revenge on the Vietnamese, and on his bosses, and kind of always just assuming he’s fully justified in his actions… one can see and feel the problems these types of archetypal heroes might perpetuate. Look, Steele Justice is a largely forgotten late 1980s action film that was aping bigger films and ultimately it’s harmless and hopelessly time stamped. It’s very possible and probable that anyone interested in this Blu-ray release will have a great time watching Steele be unleashed. I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s just also impossible in the era of mass shootings and white male rage and Me Too not to get occasionally uncomfortable at an archetype who has aged poorly.
Kove’s own career has seen a resurgence as he’s had the privilege to play once again his most iconic role of Kreese in Cobra Kai, a show which adds nuance and humanity to characters of this same era in question. Kove has shown villainy and complexity in his modern portrayal of Karate Kid’s villainous Kreese. The same opportunity isn’t afforded him in Steele Justice. But at least John Steele knows that, when you get hit in the arm with a poisonous blow dart shot by Al Leong, you must INSTANTLY smash through a glass window, cut open your own arm and suck the poison out, and then cauterize it yourself with a flamin’ hot chafing dish. And if we can’t all learn from that, then we’re truly screwed.
Aside from a nice-looking Blu-ray transfer, you’re also getting a commentary track,which is a very nice addition to this release. Star Martin Kove and writer/director Robert Boris revisit the film together with Alex Van Dyne moderating their conversation. Much like my own kind of ponderous review above examining the kinds of heroes we worshiped on the silver screen back then, Boris and Kove are often riffing on what they might do differently today throughout the commentary. It’s a little different than most commentaries I’ve listened to in that respect. It’s almost like a play by play of how these guys would apply all the lessons they’ve learned in life and in their craft since making this film TO this film. I’m not sure they’d end up with a better film, all told, because Steele Justice is nothing if not a genuine product of 1987 American zeitgeist.
And I’m Out.
Steele Justice is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics